ELEVEN YEARS, TWO MONTHS, SEVEN DAYS.
The last time I had physical contact with a blood relative.
The fingers of my left hand drum against the steering wheel and my right hand grips the stick shift. The urge to shift into First, slam the gas and hightail it out of the dismal gray parking lot pulses through my veins.
I force my stiff fingers to release the gear stick. Music could take the edge off, but the bass from the speakers vibrates in a way that could draw attention to my car hiding in the employee-only lot. From here, I can watch the visitors enter and exit the social services building.
Ninety minutes ago, my mother walked in. Now I need to see her walk out. With each intake of cold air, the itch to leave grows. So does the itch to meet her.
The heater died a half hour ago, and the engine stalled twice. A few more things to fix on the growing list. In need of a new resistor, the heater will be a cheap fix.
My cell rings. Without checking the caller ID, I know who it is, yet I answer anyway. "Yeah."
"I see you." Annoyance thickens my social worker's Southern accent. "She's waiting."
My eyes flicker to the corner windows close to her cubicle and six feet from my car. Courtney draws the shades and places a hand on her hip. Her ponytail swings from side to side like she's a pissed-off racehorse. Fresh out of college, she was assigned my case back in June. I guess her boss figured she couldn't jack me up more than I already am.
"I told you not to schedule a visitation." I stare at her as if we were in the same room. What I like about Courtney? She stares back. She's one of three people who have the guts to hold eye contact with an inked seventeen-year-old with a shaved head and earrings. The second one is my best friend. The third?well, the third was the girl I loved.
Courtney sighs and the ponytail stills. "It's Christmas Eve, Isaiah. She showed earlyand brought you presents. She's waited patiently for a thirty-minute visitation that should have ended forty minutes ago."
Waited. Patiently. My neck tightens and I roll it from side to side to keep from blowing steam at the wrong person.
I throw those two words at her every time she mentions my mother. Courtney drops her chin to her throat. "Don't do this. She had her reasons, and she wants to talk to you."
I raise my voice and pound my hand against the steering wheel. "Ten years!"
"It could have been fifteen, but she was a model prisoner," she says, as if that was a concession on Mom's part. "She wrote you once a week."
I glare at Courtney through the windshield. "Then be her social worker if you're up her damn ass so much. She's been out for over a year and she's just now coming to visit."
"Isaiah," she says with defeat. "Come in. Give her a chance."
I place one foot on the clutch and the other on the gas. My engine roars with anger and the car's frame vibrates with the need to run. Third Street ends at the social services building and my parking spot gives me a straight shot to the clear strip of road. Give Mom a chance? Why should I? When have I been given one?
"You have no idea what she did," I say.
"I do." Courtney softens her voice.
"I'm not talking about why she went to prison." I shake my head as if the action can dispel the memory playing in my mind. "You have no idea what she did to me."
"Yes, I do." A pause. "Come in. We can work this out."
No. It can never be worked out. "Did you know that the lights on Third Street are on a timer?" I ask her. "And that if you hit the sweet spot speed you can cruise the entire strip without hitting a red?"
Courtney bangs her fist against the glass. "Don't you dare!"
I rev the engine again. "Ever hit a quarter mile in ten seconds, Courtney?"
"Isaiah! You'd better?"
I hit End and toss the phone onto the passenger seat. Focusing on the red light, I shift into First as my foot hovers over the gas. Speed. It's what I crave. I can race the emotions away. The light turns, I release the clutch and my body slams into the seat as my foot crashes down on the gas. Is it possible to outrun memories?
WAITERS IN WHITE FRANTICALLY STEP out of my way as I race down the hall. The expensive art on the wall becomes a colored blur the faster I go. My breath comes out in a rush and my dress ruffles and crinkles against itself. I'm creating too much noise and garnering too much attention. None of that is good when I'm trying to make a quick getaway.
My heels dangle in my right hand and I lift the hem of my shimmering blue-gray ball gown with the other. Cinderella ran away because her coach was going to turn back into a pumpkin. I'm running away because I'd rather be knee-deep in axle grease.
Rounding another corner, I enter the desolate hallway near the country club's kitchen. The sound of the crowd laughing and the rhythmic beats of the jazz band become muffled the farther I run. A few more steps and I'll be home free in my sweet, sweet Mustang.
"Gotcha!" Fingers slide onto my arm and I experience whiplash. My hair stings my face as it flies forward, then back. One hand-curled spiral strand of blond bounces near my eye when it breaks loose from the jeweled clip holding the sides of my hair.
My twin brother turns me to face him. A hint of laughter plays on his lips. "Where are you going, sis?"
"Bathroom." To the parking lot and as far as possible from the ballroom.
Ethan points back toward the long hallway. "The girls' bathroom is that direction."
I lean into my brother. My eyes widen and I wonder if I look crazy, because I feel a little crazy. "Mom wants me to give a speech. A speech! I can't give a speech. I can't! Do you remember the last time Mom put me on display? Two years ago when she threw us that horrid 'surprise' fabulous fifteenth birthday party. I vomited. Everywhere."
"Yeah, I was there. It even grossed me out." His face twists in mock disgust. Ethan is laughing at me and I cannot be laughed at?at least not now.
I grab hold of his white button-down dress shirt and shake him. Or try to. The boy doesn't budge. "It took me months to find the nerve to talk at school again. Everyone there has long memories, Ethan, and they've just now forgotten. I would like to be kissed before I graduate from high school. Boys will not kiss girls who keep vomiting."
"Have you ever noticed you talk a lot when you're on the verge of a panic attack?" Ethan's kidding, but my panic is real. I'm close to an attack?very close. And if I don't get out of here soon, he'll discover my secret.
"Besides," he continues, "that was two years ago. So you hate public speaking. You'll sweat a lot, stutter a little and move on."
I swallow. If only that was my worst fear.
Ethan's my opposite. He resembles Dad with black hair and dark eyes, he's a good foot taller than me and he's brave. His eyes narrow and he tilts his head as the last word of my outburst registers. "You saidvomit. Which means an actual panic attack. I thought you were over that."
My fingers curl tighter into the material of his shirt. I messed up. How could I make such a careless mistake? For two years I've kept this secret from my family: that I still suffer from panic attacks. That when I'm the center of attention or too anxious or stressed, I become paralyzed and lose the ability to breathe. Nausea will coil in my stomach, bile will rise in my throat and the pressure will continually build until I throw up.
Life has been hard on my parents and two oldest brothers. I made the decision after the horrendous birthday party that they would never have to worry about me?the child who won't die from her illness.
"I am over it," I say. "But I don't want to make a fool of myself. I?I?" Can't think of anything good enough to get myself out of this. "I forgot my speech and I left my notes at home and I'm going to sound like an idiot." Wow?fantastic save. "Look, I'm calling twin amnesty on this."
His eyes search my face, I'm sure assessing my level of near-crazy. Years ago, we agreed to cover each other ten times in a year, regardless of repercussions. Ethan burned through his amnesty cards weeks ago and knows I usually use mine for midnight drives so I can push the speedometer on my Mustang.
"You've got one amnesty card left this year," he says as a blatant reminder that in a few days, when the new year rushes in to greet us, we'll be starting with a clean slate and I'll be covering for him again.
"Are you sure this is the hand you want to play the card on?" he continues. "Do the speech and then I'll cover your ass when you sneak out to drive the Mustang later. Driving always makes you feel better, and this ride should be relatively guilt-free. It'll be your first legal midnight run."
My brother enjoys reminding me that my infatuation with driving late at night was illegal on my intermediate license. Ethan's right?I love to drive and I have a full license now. The only way I'll get caught for breaking curfew is if Ethan blows my cover or if I leave before the speech. Either one of those options will mean a grounding for life.
All of this should be taken into consideration, and I should be thinking it through logically, but I abandoned logic back in the ballroom. My pulse begins to throb in my ears. "Yes." Definitely. "Yes, I'm playing the card now."
He lets go of my arm and glances down to where my fingers are still clutching his shirt. "I didn't see you. Do you understand? You slipped out the entrance and we never talked. I'm not taking heat from Gavin for this, twin amnesty or not."
"Not taking heat for what?" Gavin's deep voice calls from down the hallway. My hope disintegrates and falls to the floor. Crap. I'm never getting out of here.
I force myself to release Ethan and fake the smile on my face even though my heart thuds against my rib cage. My brothers are used to my disposition, what Ethan annoyingly refers to as sunshine and rainbows. I'mso going to be sunshine and rainbows if it kills me. "Hi, Gavin. I saw you dancing with Jeannie Riley. She's nice."
Gavin's the oldest of my parents' brood of five children. We're a close family, even though a huge age gap extends between the siblings. Gavin was eight and Jack was seven when Ethan and I were born. Jack stands beside Gavin and they both fold their arms over their chests when they see me and Ethan. Guess this time I didn't feign sunshine and rainbows well enough.
"Mom's looking for you," says Jack. "It's time for your speech." Jack's quiet and that may be his longest monologue for the night. Which makes it rough for me to say no to him.
"Come on, Rach," Gavin says. "You're the one that approached Mom and Dad about speaking at this event. Not the other way around. You need to get over this fear of being in the spotlight. It's in your head. It was one thing when you were seven, but it's gotten old. You're a junior in high school, for God's sake."
Gavin's right. I offered to speak at the leukemia event. A couple of weeks ago, I stumbled upon Mom crying over a picture she'd found of her oldest daughter, Colleen, and I hated the pain in her eyes. I had overheard Mom mention a few days before to a friend that she'd always dreamed of me talking on Colleen's behalf. When her friend suggested Mom should ask me to participate at this fundraiser, Mom declined, telling her she'd never put me in a situation that made me uncomfortable.
Mom's been in hell for over twenty-one years and the sole reason for my birth was to make her feel better. She still cries, so I guess that means I haven't done a very good job.
My stomach cramps and my hands begin to sweat. It's coming?the attack. I try to remember what the therapist in middle school said about breathing, but I can't breathe when my lungs won't expand.
"I changed my mind," I whisper. "I can't do the speech." I need to get out of here fast or everyone will know that I've been lying. They'll know I still have the attacks.
"Are you really going to let us down?" asks Gavin.
The squeak of the back door announces the arrival of my last brother. In one easy stride, West lopes into our private circle. The two of us favor Mom with our blond hair and eyes so blue they almost appear purple. Along with his white tux shirt and undone bow tie, West wears a baseball cap backward. "Not sure what's going on, but you should leave my little sister alone."
"Get that hat off, West," says Gavin. "Mom told you she didn't want to see a thing on your head until tomorrow morning."
Gavin leads us. He always has. But just because the four of us have always followed doesn't mean we think Gavin's awesome. In fact, Ethan, West and I find Gavin annoying. Jack is Gavin's best friend.
West pulls the cap off his head and flashes the smile that says he's playing the field?again. "There was a girl and she likes hats."
I roll my eyes as my brothers chuckle. There's always a girl. Less than a year older than me and Ethan, West is our high school's version of the guys from an MTV reality series that sleep with a new girl each night. And lucky us, Ethan and I have front row seats to watch West's show. "You're a pig."
West waggles his eyebrows at me. "Oink."
Gavin points at West. "No hat." West shoves it in the back pocket of his dress pants.
Then Gavin turns on Ethan. "She's not getting out of this, so stop trying to snatch her keys."
My head jerks to the small matching purse attached to my wrist and I catch Ethan dropping his hand, my keys in his fist. Gavin motions with his fingers for Ethan to relinquish them. With a huff, Ethan tosses to my oldest brother my only chance at escape.
Gavin raises his arms at his sides as he nears us. It's a gesture that makes me feel part of this inclusive family, yet the action also makes Gavin, who is already massively built, larger. His frame so encompasses the small hallway that I draw my arms and legs into my body in order to give him more room. Each of us responds to Gavin in our own way, but I always withdraw because I am the youngest, the lowest and the weakest.
"This is important to Mom and Dad," says Gavin. "And if you don't get in there and say a few words, you're going to disappoint both of them. Think of how upset you'll be later tonight when the guilt eats at you."
A lump forms in my throat and my lungs tighten. Gavin's right. I hate disappointing Mom and Dad, and I don't handle guilt well. But at least if I choose to bolt, I won't run the risk of humiliating myself in public.
"Rach," Gavin pleads. "This is important to them."
"To us," adds Jack.